I write this blog post humbly confessing that I am not an economist or a politician. I am not an expert on the oil industry or on “alternative fuels.” Neither am I an agricultural expert. I write as a priest and a moral theologian to ponder a puzzling trend that I might provocatively title “Burning food for fuel.”
Most notably, this is done in the production of ethanol, which uses corn. Increasingly, the government, likely pressured by certain industries and lobbies, is requiring that 10% of fuels be composed of ethanol.
Of course this requires an enormous amount of corn, which would seem to skew agriculture and the food supply. At a bare minimum it would seem that the price of corn would rise. Corn is a fairly basic staple of the world’s food supply and raising its price would seem to harm the poor especially. Further, as corn becomes more lucrative, it seems likely that more of it would be planted and less of other necessities such as rice, barley, and other grains. This doesn’t seem very good either.
Consider some excerpts from an article (on Oxfam America’s website) that I read recently:
Ethanol has been touted as the solution to our energy and climate crises. [But] Ethanol is not the answer to our oil dependency. Even if all the corn grown in the US was used for fuel, it would replace only one out of six gallons.
Meanwhile, ethanol is contributing to global hunger. Last year, 40 percent of corn grown in the US went to fuel instead of food. If all the land used to grow biofuels for the EU in 2008 had instead been used to grow food, it could have fed 127 million people for an entire year. Major land grabs are happening all over the world, often propelled by the market’s demand for biofuels, leaving marginalized communities without access to traditional land and water to grow food….
The governors of North Carolina and Arkansas have asked the EPA to waive the renewable fuel standards mandate, which requires at least 10 percent of unleaded gasoline be made from ethanol. Waiving the corn ethanol mandate will lead to an estimated 7.4 percent drop in global corn prices, which will in turn lower prices for meat, milk, eggs, and more. For people living in poverty who spend up to 75 percent of their income on food, this small change can make a big impact.
Turning corn into fuel only compounds global hunger. America cannot build our own energy security on the back of people living in poverty—it is morally indefensible and wrong for our own energy, climate, and national security interests. We have an opportunity right now to press the pause button on misguided US corn ethanol policy by telling the EPA to waive the corn ethanol mandate.
These are excerpts; the full article is here: Burning down the house to heat it.
I cannot vouch for or verify all of the points in this article, and I know nothing about Oxfam. But to put it again in a provocative way: burning food for fuel seems to go against common sense to me.
Food is a very precious and necessary commodity. Fuel is surely important, but it is secondary to food. Given that we can easily fuel our machinery with something other than food, it seems foolish to burn large quantities of food for fuel.
I would like to know your thoughts on this. Perhaps you will want to school me on some basic economic issues that I’m forgetting. Perhaps it is possible that we have such an overabundance of food that burning some of it for fuel actually makes sense.
But something tells me this is a very bad idea—maybe even immoral if it has severe effects on the poor and the hungry throughout the world, as I suspect it will.
Something else tells me that this is rooted more in an irrational fear and hatred of the petroleum industry, pressure by agricultural lobbies, and a misguided environmentalism that worries more about pollution than feeding the hungry.
But I realize these are complex issues, and what I really want to do is generate a discussion, share information, raise concerns, and perhaps alleviate some of them. Let me know what you think.
Here’s a different point of view: